The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 26, 2019

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The United States in the World Arena: Two Opposing Views (Part 2)
Richard J. Bishirjian (from MA 49:1, Winter 2007) - 06/13/08

In Summer 2004 Modern Age published my case for a realistic American foreign policy grounded in pursuit of the national interest.1 The essay had a long gestation— about twenty-five years.2 At the time this essay was prepared for publication I hoped that President Bush was pursuing a foreign policy aimed at preserving the national interest of the United States. If not, I argued, “this country may become something other than it is now,” a revolutionary nation (not unlike the French nation of Napoleon), and a disruptive influence on the world stage, a threat to itself and to the stability and the order of traditional cultures, and world politics.3 President Bush’s Second Inaugural and subsequent statements by him and his Secretary of State and other Administration spokesmen are clearer evidence that Wilsonian liberalism has been renewed and American foreign policy is in a steep spiral from which there is no escape.

At stake in the contest between Wilsonian Idealism and a reality-oriented foreign policy that pursues the American, interest is whether individual political freedoms will be protected by traditional constitutional limits on federal government power or whether those freedoms will be displaced by obligations to the interests of an imperial power. A reality-oriented foreign policy is critical for the survival of limited government because the United States has had imperial obligations thrust upon it at precisely the moment that its Constitutional law is written by judicial activists, and the executive branch is guided by Presidents who are insensitive to the limitations of state power. The foundations of a nation-state primed to become an imperial power were laid during the Great Depression, cemented during World War II, and buttressed during the Cold War. It is all too clear that the democratic idealism of American foreign policy in the present Bush Administration, fueled by war hysteria and the Administration’s “war on terror,” have engendered national security policies, and institutions such as the Department of Homeland Security, that threaten the future freedom of American citizens. When future generations reflect on their enslavement to the administrative state, they may trace their predicament to two American presidents: Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush.

Though the details of this potential threat to American freedom were not clear to me twenty-five years ago, the need to speak out against previous foreign policies guided by the cause of a New World Order began to become clear during the Reagan Administration when the Cold War elicited a rationale and public diplomacy for advancing democracy. That rationale stated that because the United States was a democracy, it could not allow itself to be surrounded by non-democratic regimes. In the context of the Cold War, this secular rationale for defeating Communism was a tolerable addition to the arsenal of intellectual defenses made in dealing with an ideology that sought to destroy anyone opposed to it. But we should notice also that Communism was an atheist life-force that threatened the religious foundations of every traditional culture with which it came in contact. As such, Communism and Democracy are “modernizing” movements that attain similar results: the secularization of society.

Let me, therefore, trace the development of my argument in Modern Age to its beginning. The substance of my Modern Age essay on the New World Order was presented in a speech to the Philadelphia Society in New York City immediately after the election of President Ronald Wilson Reagan and later published in The Hillsdale Review.4 The speech itself was well received—except by fellow-panelist Norman Podhoretz—who expressed disdain for this criticism of Richard Nixon: “American foreign policy exists in tension between two poles: realism without virtue and idealism without prudence.” “Realism without virtue,” or what I called a “vicious realism” was an appropriate description of the foreign policy of Richard Nixon.

There was more, however, to my motivation for presenting a strategy for American foreign policy to members of the Philadelphia Society than criticism of Nixonian realism. I am a child of the World War II generation that dominated American politics through the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush. I had joined the conservative movement in rebellion against policies that the World War II generation celebrated, especially its idealism. Their idealism (not the idealism of my generation) placed the burden of a growing federal government, indebtedness, welfare entitlements, and violent death in foreign wars upon my generation. To add insult to injury, they had fewer children than their parents, and stayed in power longer than previous generations because, thanks to breakthroughs in medical science, they lived longer. They dominated an America into which I was born until President Clinton defeated World War II hero, George Herbert Walker Bush.

It was my naive hope in 1980 that the election of Ronald Reagan would commence a reform of “World War II” thinking about government, including a rejection of Wilsonian idealism and the influence of secular Evangelism on American foreign policy. In 1980 we young movement conservatives eagerly waited a call to service in what we expected to be the “Reagan Revolution.” But, the Reagan administration was an old man’s administration.

Colin Powell observes in his autobiography that “the World War II generation was back in the saddle.”5 Political conservatives of my generation were shaped by the defeat of Richard Nixon by John F. Kennedy in 1960, the socialism of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the failure of the President’s will in Vietnam, and the 1964 presidential nomination fight against the Eastern Establishment by Barry Goldwater. That was our defining experience.

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